I have been looking forward to writing this review since literally forever! It must’ve been 2014 when the first concept art was leaked onto the internet and Disney confirmed that their next “princess movie” will be set 2000 years in the past on a Polynesian island in the South Pacific, where a young teenager sails away on a canoe in order to answer her call of destiny and save her people. I will warn you now, this review does contain major spoilers in order for me to fully discuss the movie, so if you want to avoid them, go watch Moana in your local cinema, enjoy it… And head straight back here!
In all honesty, upon hearing about the original concept, I didn’t believe Moana would be an instant favourite with me. I don’t even have to tell you about the global impact of Disney’s previous princess phenomenon Frozen, based on Hans Christian Andersen’s beloved fairytale The Snow Queen. You don’t go into a small local corner shop these days without seeing some product with Elsa’s face on. Frozen was released in cinemas 3 years ago, and yet still remains as popular as if it had only just hit the screens. Do I think Moana will have that same impact?
Honestly? No. We have to remember that Frozen was based on an already famous fairytale like the majority of Disney’s previous big successes (The Little Mermaid, Beauty & The Beast, Tangled etc) and was the first princess movie to contain not one, but two princesses, which proved outstandingly successful for marketing. People already had an idea about how good Frozen could be before watching it, whereas Moana is an entirely new, original idea and if I were to randomly ask someone what Moana is about without them having seen it, they just wouldn’t have much to go on. Upon watching Moana, falling in love with the perfect combination of authentic soundtrack, breathtaking animation and well-crafted characters that you instantly root for… it’s everything Frozen had managed to accomplish, yes, but here’s the thing; I believe that Moana DID IT BETTER. Moana thoroughly deserves every bit of attention it can raise, and I truly hope it manages to reach the same, if not better, success. Here’s 5 key elements why:
– MOANA‘S AUTHENTICITY
Like I mentioned above, so much study and research went into putting this movie together. Sure, there is some influences drawn upon from previous movies (Gramma Tala is not too dissimilar from Grandmother Willow in Pocahontas, bar from being a tree of course) but everything from the scenery structures, the costume design, even the day-to-day workings of the Motonui islanders seen in the opening song “Where You Are“. Directing dream team John Musker and Ron Clements journeyed along with their animation team to the real southern region of Oceania on two extensive research trips to converse with the locals, learning of their history, their culture, their traditions and everything inbetween, as well as take in the natural art of the beautiful islands around them. In the credits, you’ll see a special “thank you” message to The Oceanic Story Trust – anthropologists, academics, educators, linguists, navigators, and cultural advisers who collaborated with Disney to make Moana the movie it is today. According to members of the Trust, there is an unexplained period in their history when no-one voyaged across the ocean – the story team came up with the premise of this movies a theorised explanation as to why.
– LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA’S SONGS AND SCORE
Moana is constantly accompanied by beautiful music that really helps bring an extra mile to the story. Through the song “We Know The Way” we witness the wonderful history of Moana’s ancestors who were voyagers, a vital part of the plot. “You’re Welcome” is a fun number that perfectly fits Maui’s cocky character and showcases that Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (who voices Maui, respectively) is actually a brilliant vocal talent, singer and rapper. “I Am Moana (Song Of The Ancestors)” comes at a pivotal part of the movie when Moana has almost lost all hope when the spirit of her grandmother and her ancestors remind her of herself, her strength and her destiny. And of course, what’s a Disney musical without a show-stopping “I want” song, which comes in the form of “How Far I’ll Go“, Moana’s ballad about feeling torn between two paths of life. More than once, the emotionally-driven music brought actual tears to my eyes – something that rarely happens when I watch movies, I must add. That is the power and talent of Lin-Manuel Miranda, Mark Manchina and Opetaia Foa’i. I can’t talk about the music without mentioning that I did indeed enjoy “Shiny” sung by giant greedy crab Tamatoa (Jermaine Clements), it’s a very Bowie-esque tune that might seem out of place with the rest of the songs, but at that time in the story when Moana and Maui are in the Realm Of Monsters trying to retrieve Maui’s magical fish-hook, it actually makes a showdown between good and evil quite delightful to watch. Even if you don’t agree, let’s face it – it’s certainly memorable!
– THE SCREENPLAY MAGIC
There are so many magical moments in Moana, be it an exciting action-packed escapade fighting the Kakamora pirates or simply when Moana and Maui are conversing and ultimately learning more about each other sailing together on the canoe. There was at least 9 versions of the screenplay written, but ultimately it was Jared Bush’s that made the cut. Script-wise, there is a lot of fun, precisely timed humour, specifically from shape-shifting demigod Maui, who is ever prepared with a wisecrack about anything and everything, and helps him quickly emerge as a loveable supporting character. Maui and Moana bump heads frequently to begin with, but the more time they spend together the they realise they have in common, Maui tutors Moana in the craft of sailing and Moana helps Maui regain his shape-shifting abilities in return. They refuel each other with the confidence they need to complete their mission. There’s also quite a few quirky moments in the form of Moana’s dumb pet chicken Heihei, who often does something so unbelievingly stupid all in the name of added comic relief. But the real charm comes in the most heartfelt moments of the movie. Moana and Gramma Tala have few scenes together, but the scenes they do have are so powerful and wonderfully written. From start to finish, you’ll feel every moment from laughter to weakness to strength again. Not uncommon for a Disney adventure, but Moana certainly takes it up another 10 notches or so.
– MOANA IS A RELATABLE HEROINE
Moana, as a character, despite having lived over 2000 years in the past, is extremely relatable. She’s a 16 year old teenager (voiced by an actual Hawaiian teen in her first professional acting role, Auli’i Cravahlo) with an identity crisis, unsure of where she belongs most. Is she destined to rule her home island as chief of Motonui, or is she destined for greater things across the sea? Moana has a playful encounter with The Ocean as a child which she told herself was a dream until her grandmother tells her that she herself was an onlooker that day when The Ocean “chose” Moana by giving her the heart of Te Fiti – the very heart demigod Maui stole which descended Oceania into crumbling darkness, a darkness Moana herself is destined to revert with Maui’s help. Characteristically, Moana isn’t “perfect” – we see her fail many times throughout the movie, beginning with her first attempt to sail away upon determinedly singing “How Far I’ll Go“. But those failures are what make Moana human, and what make us, the audience, relate with her. Moana didn’t need magic powers to save the day when overcoming Te Fa in the third act of the movie – she simply confronted her and connected with her on an entirely human level, making Te Fa remember her true self, Te Fiti. The Ocean chose Moana the human, not Maui the demigod to do this. I think it’s also worth mentioning that Moana was also purposely designed to look like a real teenager as she has a realistically proportioned body type, unlike previous Disney heroines. Little boys and little girls have a healthy role model to look up to in brave Moana.
– THE ANIMATION IS ABOVE AND BEYOND
Animation is at the centre of every Disney classic. You can have characters, story, music and everything I’ve referenced above, but the glue that binds everything together is how well it is brought to life by the animation team. Moana provided the department new challenges – notibly, how to turn The Ocean into a fully-fledged character of it’s own. It splashes, it frowns, it high-fives… For all this, the department created new techniques and specifically for this purpose. The same goes for Moana’s hair, which also received special treatment so that it realistically interacted with the environment. Animators copied Dwayne Johnson’s real life facial expressions to better characterise Maui. And that’s just some of the more notable processes… everything from the trees to the ground to the fabrics is insanely detailed, more so than any previous Disney movie to date. I would even go as far as saying its outmatched Pixar with its stunning realistic sceneries in The Good Dinosaur. In one word, Moana is BEAUTIFUL, and a spectacular viewing, it’s easily the best animated movie released in cinemas this year based on the extreme efforts alone.
So, in final summarisation: Moana is by far my new favourite Disney movie. Plus, Moana herself is my new favourite heroine too for several reasons stated above. I really do hope she gets a coronation in Walt Disney World so she can join the official princess line-up alongside the likes of Mulan and Pocahontas of who she is, arguably, the most similar to (being the daughter of a chief, making her equal to princess status). And, as Maui pointed out himself; “if you wear a dress and have an animal sidekick, you’re a princess.” Ultimately, Moana is a movie about discovering your true self and who you are destined to be. So, if you haven’t already, I hope my review has inspired you to buy the next available ticket and you’ll soon find Moana will become an instant classic for you, too!